Truth and Predication
by Donald Davidson
Is That All There Is?
A review by Simon Blackburn
Donald Davidson is not widely known to the public, but he was one of the most
influential philosophers of his time. He died in 2003. He was working on this
book at the time of his death, and it has now been seen through publication by
his widow. It is a collection of lectures (the first three being his well-known
Dewey lectures, delivered at Columbia University in 1989) and although there is
a thematic unity between them, they can also be read profitably as individual
essays. The academic essay was Davidson's preferred form; he produced no monograph
or book. His many influential papers form his philosophical legacy. They tended
to be uncompromising in their difficulty, and unfortunately those in this collection
also presuppose a good deal of philosophical background. And yet Davidson's work
has a claim on more general attention. Richard Rorty has compared Davidson to
Wittgenstein, and predicted that a couple of centuries from now historians of
philosophy will be writing about the changes in the human selfimage that he brought
An air of profundity enfolded in forbidding technicality: this was Davidson's
trademark. Back in the 1970s, his name was everywhere. In many circles he was
not only the most influential living philosopher, he was something like a one-man
church. Born-again disciples would abandon hitherto cherished problems and projects
in order to sign up for baptism. To have attended his lectures, or the lectures
or seminars of his few accredited apostles, became a necessary sign of grace.
Unbelievers kept a low profile, and were met not so much with arguments as with
the pitying contempt that the initiated bestow on the unconverted.
Few had the temerity to ask what the Davidsonian fervor was all about. It was
known that the church had a sacrament called Convention T, reverently worn as
an amulet, sovereign when shaken at heresy or doubt, and itself derived from
the Polish prophet Alfred Tarski. But beyond that not very much was clear. And
Davidson's writings afforded no easy points of entry. Still, the Davidsonic
boom, as it was irreverently called, continued to sound, and it has continued
to grow in volume.
Davidson certainly made serious and imaginative contributions to the philosophy
of mind, where a position that he first put forward, known as "anomalous
monism," is now a salient landmark. It was provoked by the difficulty of
understanding "the efficacy of the mental," or how the mind can affect
the brain and body. This in turn Davidson interpreted as the difficulty of holding
together three thoughts. The first is that mental events indeed cause physical
events: it is because you recall your ineptitude that you blush, or because
you want milk that you visit the kitchen. The second is that where there is
causation, there is law-like connection: one kind of event causes another when
there is a law of nature linking them. The third is that there is nothing law-like
about the mental and the physical. There is no law that remembering ineptitude
makes people blush, or wanting milk makes them go into a kitchen. Often it depends
on what else is in a person's mind.
These three thoughts are obviously hard to hold together, and at first sight
they seem inconsistent. Davidson's ingenious solution was to suggest that mental
events are nothing but physical events (hence, monism), but that the mental
description imports a vocabulary for describing them that is unsuited for occurrence
in physical laws (hence, anomalous). There will be a law connecting the neurophysiological
event that is the memory of ineptitude with the physiological changes that issue
in a blush. But the law will be framed in terms of cellular changes, transmitted
impulses and changing chemicals, not in terms of memory or ineptitude. This
ingenious suggestion ramified into general accounts of the way in which the
mental causes the physical, and hence the question of whether reasons are causes;
and this in turn affects how we think of explanation in psychology and history,
and eventually how we are to think of ourselves as part of the natural world.
This idea illustrated Davidson's undoubted capacity to take an old problem,
turn it around in an original way, and bring out far-ranging and ambitious implications
of his new approach. It also, some would say, illustrated something less satisfying.
There is room for doubt whether the new solution quite matches up to the original
problem. The efficacy of the mental may seem not so much protected as lost in
Davidson's account, for the fact that the neurophysiological event is the memory
of ineptitude (and what kind of fact is that?) evidently plays no role in the
ensuing train of changes. Or so critics argued.
But the lectures in this posthumous collection concern Davidson's other central
interest, the philosophy of language, the part built on Convention T as the
rock on which the church was founded. What this means can be introduced with
a toy example. How does the Roman system of counting work -- the system using
symbols like I and II, but also V and X and C and D and M? As beginners, we
just learn it. We "cotton on" after a time, and then when a book has
"MDCCXLIV" on its title page, we know its date. There are rules, sure
enough: it is not just accidental or inexplicable that this sequence of letters
refers to 1744. Yet it is not easy to write down the rules explicitly. If we
wanted to do so -- say, in order to program a computer to tell us in the ordinary
Arabic notation what any sequence of Roman numerals stands for -- we might start
by saying what the individual letters stand for (the letter "I" in
Roman stands for 1, "V" in Roman for 5, and so on), and then find
a way of expressing the result of putting them together, so that "IV"
stands for 4, and "VI" for 6, and so on. In Roman it is a little complex,
since sometimes putting them together ("concatenation," as it is called
in the trade) results in subtraction (as in IV) and sometimes addition (as in
VI). But it is not very difficult to tease out the system in this as well, and
when we have finished we can point proudly to the result, and say that now we
know, explicitly, how Roman works.
The same task can be set for our own Arabic notation, and it is a bit easier.
There are the ten digits: 0, 1 ... 9. We can write down what each of these refers
to. And there is basically one rule, which is that if you concatenate a sequence
of digits with another single digit on the right of it, the result is ten times
whatever the original referred to, plus whatever the right-hand digit refers
to. Applying and re-applying this rule enables you to say explicitly what any
numeral expression of whatever length refers to. (This process is called "recursive."
One of the nice things about all this is that it gives you a hefty technical
air. If you describe the Arabic notation using the very same notation itself,
the result is called "homophonic," which also sounds pretty serious.
) And that's how the notation works. That is why it is not a miracle that the
sequence 15234 refers to fifteen thousand two hundred and thirty-four. If we
had spoken differently -- if, for example, the sign "4" had been used
for the number of hands human beings have, instead of the number of legs dogs
have -- then the longer numeral would also have referred to something different.
Numerals refer to numbers. That is what they are for. But sentences do not
refer to things. Instead they say things that are true or false. So we cannot
immediately generalize from our toy example to the sentences of full-blown language.
The great logician Alfred Tarski suggested that we could do something parallel,
if we could write down a rule that enabled us, faced with any arbitrary sentence
that the language enables us to form, to calculate when it is true. The rules
would again work by applying and re-applying to the results of concatenating
simple components of a language. (As Quine put it, we are chasing truth up the
tree of grammar.) And just as we said we would understand Roman when we could
calculate what any arbitrary sequence of numerals referred to, so Tarski proposed
that we would understand something important about how a language works if we
could calculate for any arbitrary sentence under what conditions it is true.
You would satisfy Tarski if you had a program enabling you to compute, for any
French sentence whatsoever, a result like this: la neige est blanche
is true in French if, and only if, snow is white. Tarski called this satisfying
Convention T, and the individual results, such as this one for la neige est
blanche, are called T-sentences.
Satisfying Convention T sounds like a reasonable goal, for if some sentence
escaped your net, then your rules would not enable you to determine under what
circumstances it is true, and to that extent French would be outstripping your
understanding of it. More impressively, Tarski called this "providing a
definition of truth which satisfies Convention T," for that particular
language. His choice of words is arguably a pity, since it carries the sinister
implication that the definition of truth for one language is going to be different
from that of another, and this may ring philosophical alarm bells. As it stands,
the innocent activity of finding a parallel, for a language, of what we so easily
found for Roman and Arabic, has no such dark implications. If we said that what
we had done was to define "reference to a number" for Roman and for
Arabic, we would be misleading ourselves if we went on to conclude that reference
to a number was "something different" in the Roman and Arabic worlds.
What we have done is to discover how they each do it, but what they each do
may be just the same, and similarly the truth that snow is white is the same
on either side of the Channel, or the Atlantic.
It proved pretty difficult for logicians to provide rules satisfying Convention
T, even for quite simple and artificial languages. For good but complicated
reasons, Tarski needed to work in an oblique way, and he himself was pessimistic
about extending his methods to the languages that we actually use, which contain
nasty complications. All this provided an exciting playground for logicians.
And their house jargon -- "concatenation" and "recursive,"
and also "satisfaction," "sequences," "metalanguage,"
"finitary methods," "hierarchies," "atomic sentences,"
and many others -- proved irresistible to philosophers, as dazzling as the latest
bling and strutted every bit as proudly. By laying down Convention T, Tarski
had done something very interesting. The only problem for philosophers was to
decide what it was.
Was it -- holy of philosophical holies -- nothing less than a new and scientific
answer to Pilate's question, "what is truth?" Not quite, urged caution. Go back
to our toy example. Thinking of ourselves as having defined "reference to a
number in Roman" would be a bit off-color. From Pythagoras and Plato onward,
philosophers have regarded reference to numbers as one of the great mysteries,
right up there with Pilate's question. How do we know anything of timeless,
changeless, abstract entities such as numbers? Why is that knowledge useful?
We would not deserve much of a hearing if we leaped into the marketplace in
Athens waving our rules for Roman and Arabic, and advertising them as solutions
to those problems. The reason is obvious enough: our rules simply take reference
to numbers for granted, both for individual letters or digits, and for sequences
of them. Similarly, Tarski's critics insisted that he did not enable us to answer
any interesting questions about truth itself. His methods take truth -- and its
close cousin, the satisfaction of predicates (such as "is red") by things (red
things) -- for granted. He shows only what counts as the answer to questions about
the structure of language -- a valuable topic, but a different one.
Tarski himself, writing in the heyday of positivism (his great paper was published
in 1933), hinted that he was not sure that there was a "problem of truth" beyond
the kind of problem that can be tackled by his methods. This may seem strange.
Why should Pilate's question be supposed to go away? The clever idea is that
when Pilate asks "what is truth?" we reply: "you tell me." That is, you tell
me which sentence you are interested in (for instance, la neige est blanche)
and we will tell you what makes it true or what would make it true if it is
false, by repeating the T-sentence, derivable from our understanding of the
structure of French: "la neige est blanche is true if, and only if, snow is
white." End of story. There is nothing further to be said in general about truth.
This is called deflationism. It is exactly as if you went to the marketplace
in Athens and really did ask Plato and Pythagoras: "You want to know about reference
to numbers? OK, give me a numeral." And they give you 3451. "Right," you say -- now
a drum roll, as you perform the computation -- "'3451' in Arabic refers to 3451.
There is nothing further to say."
The penultimate sentence gives no news that you could not have worked out for
yourself as a competent speaker of your language, so the last sentence seems
especially outrageous. But Davidson is attracted by this haughty and dismissive
attitude, and he shares the most important part of its ideology. The part he
shares is that if you say "what makes a sentence true" by giving its
T-sentence, you do not mention facts, states of affairs, human minds, what science
is fated to agree upon in the long run, human utility, or anything else that
traditional theories of truth have brought into the picture. You do not have
to repair to those things, since you simply use one sentence to describe when
a given sentence is true. Davidson believes that this slays a host of philosophical
Consider the way Davidson's theory of truth bypasses reference to facts and
states of affairs. It has always been tempting to think of true sentences as
"corresponding with the facts," and if we take this seriously it suggests some
kind of mapping, whereby elements in the one structure, the sentence, correspond
to elements in another structure, such as things and their properties, making
up facts. But this soon runs into troubles, many of which are the subject of
the insightful chapters in this volume on predication. If a sentence is just
a concatenation of words, together picturing a fact, how does anything actually
get asserted? There is a gulf between saying that Socrates is wise and merely
picturing Socrates in some relation to wisdom. And the whole idea of a fact
as some kind of structure is doubtful. As Wittgenstein remarked, if facts were
structures, then they might have a location or move about, but they do not.
So what a relief it is to be able to remove all the difficulties, by simply
using one whole sentence to describe when another is true. Then we do not have
to say that sentences "correspond with" or refer to anything at all, but give
their meaning in the quite different way that Tarski has shown us.
One might protest that if you say "what a numeral refers to" by giving
the equivalent of its T-sentence -- "3145" refers in Arabic to 3145 -- you
do not invoke abstract entities, Platonic eternal structures, human minds, formulae,
proofs, or anything else that traditional theories of number have brought into
the picture. Yet surely this is only a temporary respite. After all, we haven't
yet asked what your own understanding of the numeral you use to interpret Roman,
or Arabic, requires. Perhaps it brings you into the territory of these old dragons.
So declaring them slain might be a result of putting the telescope to a blind
eye, rather than anything else. Among beleaguered philosophers, though, any
excuse for advertising the twilight of the dragons can be tempting.
In the end, Davidson demurs from deflationism, but for a different reason,
which introduces the last element needed to understand his philosophical habitat.
When we wrote that la neige est blanche is true in French if and only
if snow is white, what we said could be construed in one of two ways. First,
it might be an empirical remark about an empirically given system of sound and
writing, one with a history and long evolution, used by a particular people
in a particular place. If the history and the evolution had been just a little
different, it might not even have been true. But second, and quite differently,
we could construe it as a stipulation, part of the definition of an abstract
structure, to be called French, which might or might not be the language actually
used by anyone, either on this planet or anywhere else.
The great Rudolph Carnap was the first to be really clear about this distinction,
back in 1942, when he called it the distinction between applied semantics and
pure semantics. But almost everyone has been muddled about it ever since. Indeed,
this collection begins with a long-winded engagement with the difference. Eventually,
and in spite of some false steps, Davidson fights his way to the side of the
angels, although he is not nearly as clear as Carnap. He recognizes that if
you take the second route, empirical questions do not go away. They simply become
framed as the question of whether the structure you now have, together with
the rules for generating T-sentences for it, is rightly regarded as the actual
language of any given group in a given place and time. That is indeed an empirical
question -- and solving it is enough to give an interpretation of the group. It
is saying which abstract structure, described à la Tarski, deserves to
be called the language they actually use. For comparison, go back to Roman.
We could stipulate in dozens of ways how letters are to refer to numbers, and
give dozens of different formulae for the result of concatenating them. Only
one of those zillions of possibilities gives us the abstract structure actually
used by the Romans.
Here is where Davidson found his epiphany. Philosophical labor now splits into
two. First, explore the abstract structures, after serving a long novitiate
under Tarski, and extend his methods to include apparently intractable structures
thrown up by natural languages. That is the technical program, which was pursued
with limited success by many philosophers of his day. And second, think what
is involved in giving the interpretation of a group by associating them with
just one such structure. So Davidson urges that there is something further to
say, something that Tarski has not told us. In the case of numbers, you need
to say what makes it reasonable to interpret any empirically given group as
using the Arabic notation. How do we know, for instance, whether they use the
symbol "5" to refer to the number of fingers on a hand or the number of hands
on an arm? How do we know that the result of concatenation is always calculated
to base ten, and not occasionally to base eight? Similarly in the case of language,
what can make it reasonable to select just one abstract structure out of all
the zillions of possibilities to describe them?
The answer to this might seem to be best given by looking at developmental
psychology, for whatever else we know about language, we know that human beings
learn it. The trouble is that we do not know that much about how we do it. So
perhaps the method is better studied by imagining a self-conscious adult interpreting
the speech of others. Hence, closely following his mentor Quine, Davidson dramatized
the process in the heroic figure of the radical interpreter, the lone anthropologist
without benefit of dictionaries or help from bilinguals, who sets himself the
task of interpreting the speech of another people. In this way the topic shifted
from truth to meaning and understanding.
Three things seemed clear to Davidson about the method of radical interpretation.
It has to be empirical: the interpreter has nothing to go on but what can be
observed of the behavior of his target group. It has to be holistic: he will
be solving for many elements simultaneously, and a choice made in one place
will affect what is to be said in other places. And it has to proceed under
a principle of charity: unless the interpreter supposes the group is generally
in touch with the world and what is true about it, he cannot proceed. Empirical
sobriety, holism, and charity are what it takes to speed interpretation on its
An old-fashioned metaphysician or philosopher of mind would question the value
of the whole approach. He might say, as the philosopher David Lewis said, that
all this might tell us how we determine the facts, but it does not tell us how
the facts determine the facts. Davidson may tell us how we manage to salute
others as like-minded with ourselves, but that seems a good deal easier and
less exciting than discovering how we or others come to be minded in the first
place. Reverting once more to our toy analogy, it is not too difficult to see
how to set about interpreting some target group as counting in Roman, but that
is not yet to understand how we come to think of eternal abstract objects such
as numbers, or even whether that is a sensible description of what we actually
do, nor is it telling us much about whether in mathematics truth is dependent
on proof, or how much of it there is, or indeed anything else. And declaring
such questions to be old hat, finally transcended or overcome by a new emphasis
on interpretation, seems at best premature, and at worst a naked takeover bid.
In fact, over the last twenty years, skeptics and apostates from the Davidsonian
church have recognized that the interpreter's own understanding is a dragon
that remains unslain, grinning and mocking this approach to meaning and interpretation.
This is actually in addition to the complaint that the whole edifice is a bit
rickety, since if meaning is a satisfactory notion, explained by the method,
then this undercuts the need for the logical austerity given by insisting on
the ubiquity of T-sentences in the first place. Please do not panic if that
does not immediately make sense to you, since very few philosophers noticed
But for Davidson even this was just the overture, and easily forgotten after
the real rout of the dragons began. For the truly amazing thing about Davidson's
philosophy was the amount he managed to extract from his simple thoughts about
interpretation, or rather from these simple thoughts coupled with a resolute
policy of declaring anything on which they have no purchase to be thereby obsolete -- nothing
but old philosophical phantoms. It turns out that if the method of interpretation
is declared to be our only avenue to raising and solving questions about meaning
and truth, quite a lot becomes obsolete.
All questions become public questions, so no problem of a connection between
meaning and consciousness remains. Davidson argues that only interpreters need
the concept of belief (to "take up the slack" between how the interpreter
sees the world and any divergence on the part of his subject), but that without
such a concept thought is impossible. Skepticism is conquered, since the method
of charity ensures that an interpreter will always take us to be saying and
thinking things that are mostly true. There is no possibility of declaring anyone
to be mostly wrong about most things most of the time, and hence we are ourselves
are not so deceived, and Descartes's malin génie is finally vanquished.
Tarski had denied that semantics was a system for determining that everyone
except you and your friends is talking nonsense, but Davidson overcame any such
inhibitions, arguing that there can be no divergent conceptual schemes, since
if an interpreter is faced with something that he cannot get hold of by the
certified methods, then he has to declare it incapable of truth or falsity,
or incapable of meaning at all.
In this way the relativism of different ways of thought, different conceptual
systems, is abolished. So Davidson affirms the hegemony of contemporary American
more triumphantly than Dick Cheney could dream of, since if a way of thought
cannot be interpreted in these homely terms, this shows that it was not thinking
after all. This marks the death of any notion of a conceptual scheme, since
there is only the one way of thought. And empiricism itself is put in its grave,
since it works in terms of conceptual schemes and their content, and now the
very idea is abolished.
Nobody could say that Davidson's arguments for these grand conclusions were
watertight. At their best they depend upon some kind of principle of verification,
declaring possibilities we cannot comprehend not to be possibilities at all.
Beyond that, they depend upon apparently arbitrary restrictions on what the
interpreter might learn, and upon turning a blind eye to detailed objections,
or to the residual problem of how the interpreter understands things in the
first place. In some cases, such as that of animal thought, there seemed to
be little more to the argument than free association of ideas.
So how did the church of Davidson triumph? Philosophers think of themselves
as the guardians of reason, intent beyond other men upon care and accuracy,
on following the argument wherever it leads, spotting flaws, rejecting fallacies,
insisting on standards. This is how we justify ourselves as educators, and as
respectable voices within the academy, and even in public life. But there is
a yawning chasm between our self-image and our practice. It is in fact a great
mistake to think that philosophers gain their followings or their reputations
mainly by means of compelling arguments.
The truth is the reverse: when the historical moment is right, people fall
in love with the conclusions, and any blemish in the argument is quickly forgiven.
The most outright fallacy becomes beatified as a bold and imaginative train
of thought; and obscurity actually befits a deep original exploration of dim
and unfamiliar interconnections; and arguments that nobody can follow at all
become a brilliant roller-coaster ride toward a shift in the vocabulary, a re-formulation
of the problem. Follow the star, and the raw edges will easily be tidied up
later. The result was nicely put by Bacon nearly four hundred years ago: "The
human understanding is not composed of dry light, but is subject to influence
from the will and the emotions, a fact that creates fanciful knowledge; man
prefers to believe what he wants to be true."
To benefit from this kind of charity, you have to catch the tide at exactly
the right moment. Davidson did so. Ever since the 1950s, or even before, the
tide had been running his way. Wittgenstein, various Oxford philosophers, Sellars,
and Quine had all inveighed against the privacy of meaning, against the conception
of mind that gave rise to Cartesian skepticism, and against the myth of the
given at the heart of empiricism. Even before them, philosophers such as Husserl,
Heidegger, and Sartre, and also Collingwood in England, thought that the "intentionality"
or "world-directedness" of the mind reversed the priority given to
our subjective mental space in the Cartesian and early modern traditions. The
time had come for a revolt against the idealist or skeptical dissociation between
the mind and its world that had obsessed philosophers for hundreds of years.
This behaviorist (or anti-privacy) agenda was part of the spirit of the age,
and many philosophers besides Davidson were ready to swim along. Davidson was
not cynically exploiting this spirit, but he was caught in the tide along with
some of his most able contemporaries. And his expository abilities, with the
nicely puzzling mix of promised insight and intimidating technicality, fitted
him to be the perfect spokesman for the movement, the heir to Wittgenstein and
Quine. By harnessing all these energies, and decorating the result with the
incense of serious logic, Davidson could found his church.
It is too early to say whether the church will last. There are many philosophers
who find that there is yet life in quite a few of the ancient dragons. But it
is quite possible that Rorty is right, that the church will last two hundred
years. After all, it promises philosophical salvation, a world free of dragons.
Who would want to resist that?
Simon Blackburn is professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge.
He is the author, most recently, of Truth: A Guide (Oxford University Press).
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